The Challenge of Journalism Is to Survive in the Pressure Cooker of Plutocracy
by Bill MoyersMay 27, 2015
Thank you for allowing me to share this evening with you. I’m delighted to meet these exceptional journalists whose achievements you honor with the Helen Bernstein Book Award.
But I gulped when [New York Public Library President] Tony Marx asked me to talk about the challenges facing journalism today and gave me 10 to 15 minutes to do so. I seriously thought of taking a powder. Those challenges to journalism are so well identified, so mournfully lamented, and so passionately debated that I wonder if the subject isn’t exhausted. Or if we aren’t exhausted from hearing about it. I wouldn’t presume to speak for journalism or for other journalists or for any journalist except myself. Ted Gup, who teaches journalism at Emerson and Boston College, once bemoaned the tendency to lump all of us under the term “media.” As if everyone with a pen, a microphone, a camera (today, a laptop or smartphone) – or just a loud voice – were all one and the same. I consider myself a journalist. But so does James O’Keefe. Matt Drudge is not E.J. Dionne. The National Review is not The Guardian, or Reuters TheHuffington Post. Ann Coulter doesn’t speak for Katrina vanden Heuvel, or Rush Limbaugh for Ira Glass. Yet we are all “media” and as Ted Gup says, “the media” speaks for us all.
What happens to a society fed a diet of rushed, re-purposed, thinly reported “content?” Or “branded content” that is really merchandising — propaganda — posing as journalism?So I was just about to email Tony to say, “Sorry, you don’t want someone from the Jurassic era to talk about what’s happening to journalism in the digital era,” when I remembered one of my favorite stories about the late humorist Robert Benchley. He arrived for his final exam in international law at Harvard to find that the test consisted of one instruction:
“Discuss the international fisheries problem in respect to hatcheries protocol and dragnet and procedure as it affects (a) the point of view of the United States and (b) the point of view of Great Britain.” Benchley was desperate but he was also honest, and he wrote: “I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fisheries problem, and nothing about the point of view of the United States. I shall therefore discuss the question from the point of view of the fish.”
So shall I, briefly. One small fish in the vast ocean of media.
I look at your honorees this evening and realize they have already won one of the biggest prizes in journalism — support from venerable institutions: The New Yorker, The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. These esteemed news organizations paid — yes, you heard me, paid — them to report and to report painstakingly, intrepidly, often at great risk. Your honorees then took time — money buys time, perhaps its most valuable purchase — to craft the exquisite writing that transports us, their readers, to distant places – China, Afghanistan, the Great Barrier Reef, even that murky hotbed of conspiracy and secession known as Texas.
And after we read these stories, when we put down our Kindles and iPads, or — what’s that other device called? Oh yes – when we put down our books – we emerge with a different take on a slice of reality, a more precise insight into some of the forces changing our world.
Although they were indeed paid for their work, I’m sure that’s not what drove them to spend months based in Beijing, Kabul and Dallas. Their passion was to go find the story, dig up the facts and follow the trail around every bend in the road until they had the evidence. But to do this — to find what’s been overlooked, or forgotten, or hidden; to put their skill and talent and curiosity to work on behalf of their readers — us — they needed funding. It’s an old story: When our oldest son turned 16 he asked for a raise in his allowance, I said: “Don’t you know there are some things more important than money?” And he answered: “Sure, Dad, but it takes money to date them.” Democracy needs journalists, but it takes money to support them. Yet if present trends continue, Elizabeth Kolbert may well have to update her book with a new chapter on how the dinosaurs of journalism went extinct in the Great Age of Disruption.
You may have read that two Pulitzer Prize winners this year had already left the profession by the time the prize was announced. One had investigated corruption in a tiny, cash-strapped school district for The Daily Breeze of Torrance, California. His story led to changes in California state law. He left journalism for a public relations job that would make it easier to pay his rent. The other helped document domestic violence in South Carolina, which forced the issue onto the state legislative agenda. She left the Charleston Post and Courier for PR, too.
These are but two of thousands. And we are left to wonder what will happen when the old business models no longer support reporters at local news outlets? There’s an ecosystem out there and if the smaller fish die out, eventually the bigger fish will be malnourished, too.
A few examples: The New York Times reporter who rattled the city this month with her report on the awful conditions for nail salon workers was given a month just to see whether it was a story, and a year to conduct her investigation. Money bought time. She began, with the help of six translators, by reading several years of back issues of the foreign language press in this country… and began to understand the scope of the problem. She took up her reporting from there. Big fish, like The New York Times, can amplify the work of the foreign language press and wake the rest of us up.
A free press, you see, doesn’t operate for free at all. Fearless journalism requires a steady stream of independent income.It was the publisher of the Bergen Record, a family-owned paper in New Jersey who got a call from an acquaintance about an unusual traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. The editor assigned their traffic reporter to investigate. (Can you believe? They had a traffic reporter!) The reporter who covered the Port Authority for the Record joined in and discovered a staggering abuse of power by Governor Chris Christie’s minions. WNYC Radio picked up the story and doggedly stuck to it, helped give it a larger audience and broadened its scope to a pattern of political malfeasance that resulted in high-profile resignations and criminal investigations into the Port Authority. Quite a one-two punch: WNYC won a Peabody Award, the Record won a Polk.
A Boston Phoenix reporter broke the story about sexual abuse within the city’s Catholic Church nine months before the Boston Globe picked up the thread. The Globe intensified the reporting and gave the story national and international reach. The Boston Phoenix, alas, died from financial malnutrition in 2013 after 47 years in business.
So once again: How can strong independent journalism thrive when independent outlets can’t afford to pay reporters, writers or producers a living wage; or when websites ask them to post four or five items a day; or when they leave journalism school and take jobs logging algorithms at Facebook (what does that even mean?). What happens to a society fed a diet of rushed, re-purposed, thinly reported “content?” Or “branded content” that is really merchandising — propaganda — posing as journalism?
And what happens when PR turns a profit and truth goes penniless? One of my mentors told me that “News is what people want to keep hidden, everything else is publicity.” So who will be left to report on what is happening in the statehouse or at the town hall? In the backrooms of Congress, the board rooms of banks and corporations, or even the open and shameless bazaar of K Street where the mercenaries of crony capitalism uncork bottles of champagne paid for by “dark money” from oligarchs and PACs? What happens when our elections are insider-driven charades conducted for profit by professional operatives whose spending on advertising mainly enriches themselves and the cable and television stations in cahoots with them? We know the answer, we know that a shortage of substantial reporting means corruption remains hidden, candidates we know little about and even less about who is funding them and what policy outcomes they are buying. It also means even more terrifying possibilities. As Tom Stoppard writes in his play Night and Day, “People do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse in the places where everybody is kept in the dark.”
A free press, you see, doesn’t operate for free at all. Fearless journalism requires a steady stream of independent income. Allow me to speak from personal experience. After I left government in 1967 — including a stint as White House press secretary — it took me a while to get my footing back in journalism. I can assure you: I found the job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth almost as complicated and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place. Unless you’re willing to fight and re-fight the same battles until you go blue in the face, drive the people you work for nuts going over every last detail again and again to make certain you’ve got it right, and then take hit after hit accusing you of “bias,” there’s no use even trying. You have to love it, and I have. And still do.
Forty years ago my team and I produced the first documentary ever about the purchase of government favors by PACs — political action committees. For the final scene, we unfurled yard after yard of computer printouts across the Capitol grounds, listing campaign contributions to every member of Congress – including several old friends and allies with whom I had worked during my time in government. You could hear the howls all the way to kingdom come. Even members of Congress who had just recently voted to create PBS were outraged. This and other offenses by kindred journalists in public television prompted Richard Nixon and his communications director Pat Buchanan to try to shut off the oxygen.
Nevertheless, early in the Reagan years, we produced a documentary called The Secret Government. Our reporting exposed an interlocking network of official functionaries, spies, mercenaries and predators, ex-generals and profiteers working outside the legitimate institutions of government to carry out foreign follies without regard to public consent or congressional approval. We followed that one with High Crimes and Misdemeanors about the Iran-Contra scandal. Republicans accused public television of committing — horrors! — journalism. Well into the next decade they invoked both documentaries as they threatened PBS funding. When we documented illegal fundraising by Democrats in 1996 – in a documentary we called Washington’s Other Scandal because it wasn’t about sexual antics in the White House – this time it was the Clinton administration that howled.
But taking on political scandal is nothing compared to what can happen if you raise questions about corporate power in Washington. Working on a Frontline documentary about agriculture we learned that the pesticide industry was behind closed doors trying to dilute the findings of a National Academy of Sciences study on the effects of their chemicals on children. When word of our investigation got around the industry, they mounted an extensive and expensive campaign to discredit our reporting before it aired. A Washington Post TV columnist took a dig at the broadcast on the morning before it was to air that evening. He hadn’t even seen the film and later confessed to me that his source had been a top lobbyist for the chemical industry. Some public television managers were so unnerved by the blitz of misleading information about the documentary that they had not yet broadcast or even watched, that they protested its production to PBS with letters that had been prepared for them by the industry!
We spent more than a year working on another documentary called Trade Secrets which revealed how big chemical companies had deliberately withheld from workers and consumers information about toxic chemicals in their products. We weren’t peeking through the keyhole; we had the documents. We confirmed that major American companies were putting human lives at risk. We showed what the companies knew, when they knew it and what they did with what they knew — they deep-sixed it.
Our reporting portrayed pervasive corruption in the chemical industry and raised profound policy implications from living under a regulatory system designed by the industry itself. The attack on us was well-funded, deceitful and vicious. To complicate matters, the single biggest recipient of campaign contributions from the chemical industry – over 20 years in the House of Representatives — was the very member of Congress who had jurisdiction over PBS appropriations. Fortunately, we hadn’t used any public funds to produce the documentary, the leadership of PBS again held firm, our report aired — and won an Emmy for investigative journalism.
But remember: I had an independent stream of income – from a handful of foundations that believe democracy needs journalism, and from my sole corporate sponsor of almost 30 years, Mutual of America Life Insurance Company.
Before Mutual, I had lost three corporate funders because of broadcasts that offended their CEOs, directors, customers or their cronies in high office. Now, I can tell you that losing your underwriter can send an independent producer to the showers, end your career and — more deadly — unconsciously distort your intuition about what is permissible the next time you think about producing another documentary. Self-censorship is all the more insidious when you don’t recognize that you have been infected. But Mutual of America had my back. Not once in almost three decades of reporting from the intersection where corporate influence touches political power did I have a single complaint from anyone at the company, even when I knew they were getting an earful from others. Consider yourself blessed if you are backed by capitalists with courage.
Once upon a time the networks supported muscular investigative reporting into betrayals of the public trust. But democratic values lost out to corporate values when media giants merged news and entertainment and opened the throttle on what Edward R. Murrow called their “money-making machine.” Mind you, there was no “golden age” of broadcasting at any network, but there were enough breakthrough moments that we could imagine a future in which subjects treated in the books being honored here this evening — subjects that extend the moral reach of journalism — might be staples in the schedule.
It wasn’t to be. And the challenge of journalism today is to survive in the pressure cooker of plutocracy. Where, in this mighty conglomeration of wealth and power, when for all practical purposes government and rich interests are two sides of the corporate state — where is the moral center of the commonwealth? How does journalism serve the endangered ideals of democracy? Can we find the audience that will dive deep — the audience that rebels against being treated as a branded market identified by the price tag on it? How do we report on the creeping dystopia of a cynically frivolous society with a political class that has made an ideology of ignorance, demoralizes workers and disdains the future? Can journalists be both patriotic and subversive — will we cover those who seek to disrupt the workings of a dominant and ruthless over-class with the attention and enthusiasm we accord the powers that be — by whom so many journalists appear mesmerized?
In an oligarchic era, you can be quickly marginalized by a corporate media and political class so comfortable in the extravagantly blended world of money, politics and celebrity that they don’t bark at the burglars of democracy, much less bite the hand that feeds them.
Wrestling with these questions is unavoidable. It requires on the part of journalists a high tolerance for public or private cuffing, as well as qualities of inquiry, observation and understanding that are either supported by the organization you work for or assured by an independent stream of income.
We still find great investigative reporting at certain legacy organizations. And the Web boasts some superb truth-telling. But everyone knows the digital future is precarious. As Clay Shirky once wrote: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.” For an optimistic forecast of the possibilities I urge you to read the speech Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, delivered in April at the University of California, Riverside. For a dazzling trip to new media’s cutting edge, read the current edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, reported and written by 14 of the school’s own students. For a sobering perspective, consider the Knight Foundation’s recent third report on the status of nonprofit news ventures. Of the 14 nonprofits that it followed since the last report, three have been able to grow, four have cut staff and seven have held steady. Only one could be called a stand-out success — the Texas Tribune, with 42 full-time employees and an operating budget four times larger than any of the other organizations in the study. For the rest of the organizations in the study, however, the growth in staffing and traffic seem stalled, prompting the Columbia Journalism Review to say that if the report was a weather forecast, the prediction for nonprofit news would be partly cloudy with a chance of sun.
In the face of such chaos and uncertainty, some of us have been talking a lot about how to pay for independent journalism. In moments of reverie we even imagine there are sympathetic billionaires worried about how other billionaires are buying up the political system and wonder if that concern runs deep enough to fund a multi-billion trust fund for investigative journalism – say, a new Carnegie or Rockefeller Foundation devoted exclusively to encouraging continuous scrutiny of how America is working — and for whom? Both Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were rapacious capitalists who nonetheless invested much of their fortunes in the improving of democracy. Carnegie funded libraries all across the country — including one in my hometown of Marshall, Texas — to serve the public thirst for knowledge. Why not a modern Carnegie — even a Google – that would spread independent journalistic websites dedicated to the public’s need to know?
We know that contributions from individuals, not institutions, make up most of American philanthropy, and we think some of that should be directed toward nonprofit journalism. An FCC report in 2011 found that if Americans spent one percent of their charitable giving on nonprofit media it would generate $2.7 billion a year. If community foundations put five percent of their spending toward local journalism it would generate $130 million annually. And if the foundations of the top new media corporations and their founders put five percent of their spending toward local accountability journalism it would generate $220 million annually.
But we need more than money to sustain independent journalism. We need laws to ensure that reporters can protect their sources. We need to hound government at every level to respond to public records requests. We need stronger reporting requirements for corporations so that they can be held accountable.
Above all, we need journalists and writers like those you honor tonight. They participate in what the iconic filmmaker John Grierson called “the articulation of our time.” No matter the technology employed, it is the deeply moved and engaged individual who can transcend the normal province of journalistic convention to see and speak truths others have missed in all that is hidden in plain sight.
I am privileged to be in your company. Thank you again for inviting me. And congratulations to the recipients of the Helen Bernstein Award. Thank you for keeping the flame burning.
Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com.